Eamon Mccann: Bishops Need a Lesson on Benefits of Integrated Education

Belfast Telegraph
April 2, 2009

Why should a bunch of bachelors with neither chick nor child be allowed influence over the education of children? Why should the support of Catholic Bishops be regarded as vital when it comes to deciding on a post-primary system?

How come the argument against separate schooling for children of different religions is hardly heard these days, even as politicians and commentators ramble endlessly on about the need to ‘end division’ and ‘abolish sectarianism’ and usher in a ‘new era’ in which ‘the hatreds of the past’ will be ‘put behind us’?

Is it not strange that at the end of television programmes highlighting the hostility of the young people of one community for the young people of the other there is no mention that each group has been given to believe by the temporal and spiritual leaders of the land that it would be damaging and wrong for them to learn multiplication tables in the same room?

Why the silence about the reasons this anomaly is allowed to persist? Why no discussion of what needs to be done to speed its end? We have to listen to the point of terminal tedium to one-community politicians congratulating themselves along the lines, “If I had said five years ago that five years on we’d be as far on as we are, people would have laughed.”

Some of us would have laughed had we been told 50 years ago that the occasion of all the major parties agreeing a settlement would be marked by avoidance of the issue of the educational divide. A generation ago, talk of the need to free the classrooms from clerical control was commonplace in political debate. But there they still are, unblinking on the news, bishops and spokespersons for bishops confidently explaining what they will or will not tolerate with respect to the schooling of children.

True, the divide in education isn’t the cause of sectarianism. But it reflects and is an important mechanism for perpetuating sectarianism. It’s not that hatred of ‘the other side’ is taught in the classrooms — it isn’t — but that it’s presented as perfectly natural and not to be questioned that there is nobody from ‘the other side’ present in the classroom.

The Catholic bishops have always understood that control of the formation of the minds of children is a necessary condition for the survival of their Church as a powerful institution.

They may also be generally, genuinely concerned for the welfare of the children entrusted to their care. Or, as suggested by the incidence of cover-up of physical and sexual abuse, not. Either way, canon law doesn’t insist and common sense doesn’t suggest that the interests of the children be taken as paramount. There is some truth in the talk of how far we have come. But in relation to the divide in education we have gone backwards. The heat and spite of the debate over Caitriona Ruane’s modest proposals for reform has obscured the fact that no member of any Executive party is willing to advocate as modern a measure as was vigorously advanced by Charles Stewart Vane-Tempest-Stewart, 7th Marquess of Londonderry, in the earliest days of the State.

James Craig chose Londonderry as Minister of Education specifically because, as Joseph Lee puts it in Ireland 1912-1885, “He was the least sectarian and least provincial member of his cabinet”.

Londonderry invited a wide range of interests to participate in a committee to examine the options for education in the new State. The Catholic bishops refused either to nominate a representative or to give evidence.

Londonderry went ahead anyway. Lee describes the Education Act brought forward in 1923 as “the most ambitious legislative measure ever undertaken in Irish education,” and ascribes its rapid failure to the fact that Londonderry “had proceeded under the illusion that the Catholic and Protestant clergy were more concerned with education than with power.”

Londonderry tried to increase parental power by giving local representatives a role in running elementary schools. This, says Lee, “sent a thrill of terror through all clergies”. The Act also envisaged children of any background enrolling in any elementary school, its teachers appointed on merit. Again, clergy of all denominations swooned in horror. The Catholic bishops took the lead in the dance of the denominations, while their Protestant partners kept nimbly in step.

“The refusal of the Catholic hierarchy to participate made it simpler for the Protestant churches to capture the system and mould it to their taste,” says Lee. “This suited the Catholic clergy who might have had to manufacture further complaints if they weren’t so generously supplied by their Protestant brethren. Londonderry, unable to shrivel his mind yet further to accommodate local standards, resigned as Minister in 1925.”

By 1930, the tribal shamans had the children of the land divvied up satisfactorily between them. Since then, some ideas in education have come into fashion, others have gone out of style. But all that’s changed with regard to the religious divide is that fewer people than ever in politics are willing to take it on. Charles Stewart Vane-Tempest-Stewart, 7th Marquess of Londonderry, was not only ahead of his time, but, sad to say, ahead of our time too.


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